More Than Words: A Collaborative Approach to Writing Instruction in a Graduate Science Seminar

By Nancy Linh Karls

Nancy Linh Karls

Nancy Linh Karls

Nancy Linh Karls is a senior instructor in the UW-Madison Writing Center, where she serves as its science-writing specialist. She also coordinates and teaches the Mellon-Wisconsin Dissertation Writing Camps and directs the community-based Madison Writing Assistance program. 

With 2016 soon drawing to a close, many of us have been reflecting on what we’ve been able to accomplish over the past year. For staff in the UW-Madison Writing Center, that’s a pretty significant list: meeting with thousands of student-writers in one-to-one sessions at our main location and across our many satellites; responding to hundreds of writers’ drafts via email and Skype; offering a robust series of Writing Center workshops; teaching brief units on writing in courses across the curriculum; consulting with faculty to strengthen writing instruction in their home departments; and providing our own Writing Center tutors with ongoing training and support.

In terms of some personal Writing Center highlights, I’m reminded how fortunate I am to be able to collaborate on writing instruction with faculty and staff across the disciplines, including many faculty and staff from various departments and programs in the sciences.

Partnership with the School of Veterinary Medicine

Professor Dale Bjorling

Dale Bjorling, Professor and Associate Dean, UW-Madison School of Veterinary Medicine

In one of my longer-term collaborations, I’ve had the privilege for the past 12 years of working closely with two faculty members from the UW-Madison School of Veterinary Medicine. These individuals are outstanding researchers as well as exceedingly generous teachers and mentors: Professor Dale Bjorling and Professor Charles (“Chuck”) Czuprynski.

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Charles Czuprynski, Professor and Department Chair, UW-Madison School of Veterinary Medicine

Each fall semester, Dale and Chuck teach “Research Ethics and Career Development,” a for-credit graduate seminar offered by the School of Veterinary Medicine that meets for two hours each week. The course typically enrolls between 30 and 45 graduate students, and seminar participants come from several different graduate programs in the sciences.

In their course syllabus and in their overview of the class, Dale and Chuck express to students the importance of strong, effective writing–and the importance of strong, effective science writing in particular. Moreover, these faculty members take their words much further: by allocating three full class sessions to focus explicitly on science writing and students’ own drafts in progress. In doing so, they clearly demonstrate to students that the ability to communicate well in writing is essential and that it will play a major role in students’ current programs as well as in their future careers. Dale, Chuck, and I then work together to collaboratively design and co-teach the course’s three writing-based sessions.

Session One

Staff from the Writing Center–usually myself and one of our senior graduate instructors–typically join the seminar for the first writing session in mid-October, which takes place a few weeks into the semester. On this day, the session is divided into two main parts.

The first part of the class period is facilitated by staff from the Writing Center, and we share a presentation entitled “Some Fundamentals of Scientific Writing.” This presentation highlights some key issues in scientific writing, some common reading strategies that scientists tend to use, and some persuasive writing strategies typically employed by successful science writers. Referencing passages and examples from various science journals, the presentation aims to illustrate a series of guiding principles for effective science writing. In the process, it also provides us with a common vocabulary and an anchor for our subsequent conversations about writing and revision.

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Nancy sharing “Some Fundamentals of Scientific Writing” (October 18, 2016)

For the second part of the class period, we transition from these principles of writing to a focus on additional real-world examples. During this time, Dale and Chuck each share a one- or two-page sample of their own writing, often drawing from research proposals that they had recently submitted but that were not ultimately funded. After reading aloud the samples, which are visible on the screen at the front of the room, they ask the students to provide feedback regarding specific strengths and weaknesses.

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Dale awaiting student comments on his research proposal (October 18, 2016)

Year after year, I’m always struck by students’ deep levels of engagement as they review their professors’ writing samples. The students are careful readers and can also be challenging reviewers. They consistently offer astute comments regarding what they view as effective or ineffective, whether it be insufficient focus, overly complex sentences, or unclear or ambiguous language. Moreover, the students are often more than eager to offer specific, thoughtful suggestions for improvement.

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Chuck and students engaging in a spirited discussion about writing (October 18, 2016)

By modeling what it’s like to share one’s work–along with a willingness to hear about that work’s potential problems or limitations–these faculty members have created a space and a context within which students can develop increased confidence about sharing their own drafts and responding constructively to those of others.

As this first session on writing draws to a close, students learn more from Dale and Chuck about the course’s major writing assignment, which asks students to compose an abstract for a research proposal they are planning to pursue or may currently be conducting.

Session Two

Stephanie Larson, UW-Madison Writing Center Instructor

Stephanie Larson, UW-Madison Writing Center Instructor

In the course’s second session dedicated to writing, which usually takes place about three weeks later, students bring copies of their abstract drafts to share with one another in a peer review workshop. During this most recent session, Stephanie Larson, a wonderful and very experienced Writing Center instructor, provided students with an overview of the peer review process, including suggested guidelines and prompts that they could use to guide their reading and comments.

After moving into groups of three or four, the students spend some time reviewing one another’s drafts and jotting down questions and comments. Then, when all group members have completed their reading and reviews, the students take turns sharing their responses with each writer. Student-writers are asked to consider all reviewers’ comments; however, the extent to which revisions will be made is left up to the individual writer.

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Students reviewing their peers’ drafts (November 8, 2016)

While students are engaged in the peer review process, both Veterinary Medicine faculty and Writing Center staff circulate thorughout the room so that groups have ready access to an outside perspective. Occasionally, group members may debate the merits of a particular rhetorical move or approach, and having another reader like Dale, Chuck, Stephanie, or myself available to share an additional insight may at times be useful. Perhaps more commonly, though, students come to understand that different readers may very well simply have different responses to the same text, and the writer bears the responsibility of deciding what (if anything) to modify. Students leave this class session with their peers’ comments and, ideally, a concrete plan for revision.

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Students sharing their responses to each other’s work (November 8, 2016)

Session Three

In the third session devoted to writing, usually one week later, students return to class with both their original and revised drafts. Each student then takes a turn sharing his or her work, which is projected on the screen for the rest of the class to view–just as Dale and Chuck had shared their writing a few weeks earlier. Students typically provide brief summaries of the comments and suggestions they received from their peers during the previous class session. They then discuss how they opted to address those comments in their revised drafts, pointing to particular passages and describing specific changes made.

By requiring that all students share their original and revised drafts with the rest of the class, the faculty reinforce their message that everyone’s work benefits from multiple reviews and from substantial revision. This draft-sharing exercise also provides students with an opportunity to frame and present their revision choices for an audience beyond their professors.

A Few Reflections 

Looking back on this Writing Center/Veterinary Medicine partnership of the past 12 years, I’m reminded of several benefits of a shared approach to writing instruction, particularly in a research-driven seminar for advanced graduate students.

First and foremost, the potential benefits for student-writers are substantial. Students gain practice in reviewing others’ writing as they work to improve their own, particularly in a supportive environment in which everyone’s goal is a stronger draft. They also gain experience in articulating and further honing their research ideas for multiple audiences, which can in turn lead to stronger, richer research proposals. Moreover, witnessing faculty and staff from very different campus programs engage in cross-disciplinary conversations about writing further underscores the importance and centrality of strong, effective communication across students’ specific disciplinary areas.

We faculty and staff members benefit as well. We gain the opportunity to learn more about common science writing genres and about current best practices in the teaching of writing. For those of us in the Writing Center, we get the added bonus of a glimpse into the exciting, high-powered research currently underway in various programs and labs across the UW-Madison campus. Of course, since teaching something the same way for a while can tempt one to go on autopilot, we’re reminded to periodically reassess our approach and explore ways it might be improved or enhanced.

As a whole, our shared approach to curriculum development, assignment design, and writing support has worked well in this course. We genuinely value the experience and expertise each party brings, and we deeply appreciate the opportunity to co-teach and to co-learn . . . together.

One thought on “More Than Words: A Collaborative Approach to Writing Instruction in a Graduate Science Seminar

  1. Nancy, thank you for sharing this detailed description of your partnership with the School of Veterinary Medicine! I’m always amazed to hear how long we’ve been partnering with some programs, and I find it just fantastic that we have maintained such a strong presence in recurring courses like this one. As a form of Outreach teaching, visiting classes on multiple occasions seems to allow you to make a much stronger impact — and I’m sure repeating the sequence over twelve years has given you the opportunity to keep refining the lesson plan, and keep developing your work in other areas of science writing instruction. Thank you for all the work you do to represent the Writing Center across the UW-Madison campus, and to bring what you learn back into the Writing Center to make us better instructors!

    Leah Pope
    Outreach Coordinator 2016-17, UW-Madison Writing Center

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